From the moment it was announced, in a commercial broadcast during halftime at an NBA Finals game, there was a distinct feeling of “Once as history, twice as farce” to Jay-Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail. The three-minute short, which showed Jay shooting the breeze with Timbaland, Pharrell and a reclining, cherubic Rick Rubin (who evidently had nothing to do with the album’s creation), played like a bad mirror image of 2004′s Fade to Black, the film surrounding 2003′s The Black Album, complete with a parody of the Rick Rubin involvement. “The idea is to really finish the album — and drop it,” Jay tells the camera earnestly, as if this was a novel concept for what to do with an album. He pretends to play stirring piano chords on a table top. Rubin waggles his socked feet at us. The whole thing plays like sketch-comedy satire.
Then we learned that instead of bothering to try to sell this magnum opus to actual music consumers, Jay-Z went and sold a million copies directly to a phone company, which would share the album with us in exchange for our personal data. All in all, there seemed to be very few reasons to be excited about Magna Carta. Jay-Z had become rap’s Bloomberg, a king who stayed too long, threw around too much weight, and Magna Carta seemed like just his latest piece of expertly engineered corporate synergy.
Sean Carter is aware of this mounting skepticism, and addresses it early on: “Even my old fans are like, ‘Oh man, just stop’/ I would if I could but I can’t, I’m hot,” he raps on “Picasso Baby,” one of several songs on MCHG produced by Timbaland that recapture the limber rhythmic vitality and sense of surprise that marked the two’s collaborations on Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life and Vol. 3: The Life and Times of Sean Carter. Of all the surprises on Magna Carta, the most welcome is the feeling that despite all the up-front commerce, the obvious brinksmanship with Kanye West’s Yeezus, released just weeks before, Magna Carta feels like an album Jay-Z wanted to make for his own reasons.
For one, he sounds as if he’d genuinely rather be rapping, as opposed to, say, being interviewed by Charlie Rose. Over the metallic, swarming production, he falls back on the hard, blunt style he leaned on in the late ’90s, chopping his raps up into biting phrases: “Pardon my laughing, I happen to think you sweet,” he sneers on “Tom Ford.” On “Somewhereinamerica,” an acidic song about the Black nouveau riche, Jay raps, “Somewhere in America, Miley Cyrus is still twerking,” which easily the funniest twist on the white girl/heroin simile game since his “Her’on’s got less steps than Britney” from “Roc Boys.”
More surprisingly, he also makes something compelling out of his inner life for the first time in years. Post-Black Album, Jay-Z has struggled to find a frame for his thoughts: Who cared about the existential doubts of, or wanted to root for, a CEO? American Gangster allowed him to slip back into his dope-dealer duds once more, which only highlighted the problem, but on Magna Carta Jay finally sounds self-aware, instead of simply self-conscious: on “F.U.T.W.,” he takes an uneasy tour through Flatbush and Red Hook, Brooklyn, reminding him that his “one percent of a billion” makes him the exception, not the rule, in Black America. In “Picasso Baby,” he underscores the hollowness of conspicuous consumption by applying it to art-buying (“I wanna Rothko/ No, I wanna brothel,” he says). And on “Jay-Z Blue,” the song about his daughter Blue Ivy, he explores the lingering taste of panic that fatherhood brings into his mouth — “Baby needs Pampers/ Daddy need at least three weeks in the Hamptons” — and ties it back to his missing father, still a looming figure in Jay-Z’s work. “I done seen my mom and pop drive each other motherfuckin’ crazy/ I got that n*gga blood in me/ I got his ego and his temper all that’s missing is the drugs in me,” he reflects.
To be fair, MCHG has its share of clunkers and missteps — opener “Holy Grail” is an insight-free meditation on the prison of celebrity, while Jay’s clumsy puns on artist names in “Picasso Baby” (“Jeff Koons balloons, I’m blowing up”) are painful. “Part II (On The Run),” his duet with Beyonce, is lukewarm and interminable. But nearly every Jay-Z album, save for perhaps Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint, has its soft spots and weak moments. What Magna Carta offers, in surprising abundance, is the sound of Jay-Z’s mind. Jay-Z’s not one for feelings, and emotions, but his mind — which he once bragged was “like a flower in bloom” — is still a pretty marvelous place to spend time.